Zero article in French: "article zéro"

What is it?

Zero article is very common in English but not in French. However it is still important to know and understand when to use it or not.

Zero article before the name of a profession

That’s probably the way you learned it, that we cannot use an article before the name of a profession. “Je suis boulanger” is correct but “Je suis un boulanger” is not. It’s good to learn it that way because it’s the most natural way to speack about your job. But it’s not entirely true and when you will hear the second sentence, you will be like “What? Did somebody lied to me?” So let’s try to explain that.

Je suis salarié

In most of the cases we should not use an article before the name of any profession. We should say:
– Je suis salarié(e). → I am a salaryman/woman.
– Elle est astronaute. → She is an astronaut.

The noun is an attribute of the subject. It works like an adjective:
– Je suis français(e) et professeur. → I am French and a teacher.
The two words “français(e)” (adjective) and “professeur” (noun) work as attribute.

So until now everything seems right.

Je suis un salarié / une salarié

Yet, it is not false to use an article. It is possible that you will hear it in some situations when somebody present somebody with the construction “c’est”:

– C’est un ingénieur.→ He is an engineer.

– C’est une astronaute. → He is a astronaut

So, logically, it is all also possible to say:

– Je suis un ingénieur. → I am an engineer.

It means the name of the profession work as an object. There is no real difference with the sentence using Zero article apart that it’s much more uncommon. But maybe, it has better value as a presentation when we want to put more distance with our job. That’s why you will hear hear most of the time at past tense:

– J’étais un professeur.→ I was a teacher.

So remember when, above, we said “Je suis français et professeur”. We will try to put two objects rather than two attributes:

– Je suis un Français et un professeur.→ I am a Frenchman and a teacher.

Don’t say it because it’s strange but it can also make you understand the logic behind it.
– “français” (adjective attribute) become “un Français” (noun object)
– “professeur” (noun attribute) become “un professeur” (noun object)

So you can see now how we can use a Noun as an attribute and, in order to do so, we need the remove the article.

One last point: if the profession already has a specific attribute, it cannot be considered as an attribute itself:

– Je suis un gentil professeur. → I am a nice teacher.

No matter how, you cannot remove the article here.

However, if the attribute is essential, you remove the article:

– Je suis professeur de mathématiques. → I am a maths teacher.

So, good transition here. There is no article before “mathématiques”. Why is that?

Zero article when using Genitive with 'de', 'à', 'sur', 'pour', 'avec', 'sans'

Genitive (or “complément du nom”) are introduced with preposition that can be followed or not by article. We can say “l’eau de la mer” as we can also say “l’eau de mer”. So now we will when to use Zero article in this case. Once again, it has something to do with the Attribute. You can check the lesson on Genitive in French here.

Zero article with “de”

With a Genitive constructions starting with “de”, you don’t add an article if the following Noun is attribute of the first one.
– Une maison de campagne. → A country home / a cottage.

As you can see, in English, it is not “a home of the countryside”. Because it’s an attribute we link the two words without any article. It’s almost one word.

On the other hand, if the relation between the two words is about possession, you add the article:
– La maison de campagne de la mère de Cloé. → Cloé’s mother’s cottage.

Zero article with “à”

With a Genitive construction starting with “à”, you also don’t add an article if the following word is 1) an essential attribute, 2) a purpose.

à + essential characteristic

Essential characteristic implies that if you remove the following noun the object is no longer the same.
– Un bateau à voile. → A sailboat.
– Un avion à réaction. → A jet aircraft.

If the attribute is not essential, we add the article. It can be a added ingredient, topping, etc…:
– Une glace à la fraise. → A strawberry ice cream.

à + purpose

Similar with essential characteristic, purpose is added directly after “à”.
– Un couteau à fromage.→ A cheese knife.
– Un placard à vêtement.→ A closet.

Zero article with ‘avec’, ‘sans’, ‘sur’, ‘sous’

All this propositions work with Zero article when included in Genitive construction.
– Une chambre avec vue. → A room with a view.
– Un homme sans qualité.→ I go to Africa.

Zero article after "en"

Preposition “en” can have many meanings but most of the time, it does not allow any article after it. There are only for the time “en un jour” (and even here, it’s not an article but a numeral adjective” and a few idiomatic constructions with “en+le/la”.

‘En’ for a country or region

Because with a country “en” means “à la”, we should obviously not add any article:
– Je vais en Afrique. → I go to Africa.

‘En’ for a transport

– Je viens en métro. → I come by metro.

‘En’ for a material

– Un pull en We can add a specification that can be include or not with AVEC and SANS.
– Un pull en laine. → A wool sweater.

The case of contracted articles

Contracted articles can be confused with zero article but we better know the difference. In the sentence “Je n’ai pas d’argent” you may think there are no article but actually there is one.

De + du / de l’ / de la / des = de, d’

Contracted articles are still articles. Even if the result of ‘de+du’ is ‘de’, we should not see it as a Zero article. As there is an article in:
– J’ai de l’argent. → I have some money.

There also (logically) is one in:
– Je n’ai pas d’argent. (de=de+de l’) → I have no money.

As we know, negative structure are followed with “de” when working with and indefinite article (‘un’, ‘une’, ‘des’). If we look at the same sentence but this time using a definite article:

– Je n’ai pas l’argent. → I don’t have the money.

As you can see, article is indeed still here.

To go further

Check lesson 20 about Genitive constructions with dialogues, audio, translation, vocab and activities!